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The Last Bubble—Barack Obama

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

The Last Bubble—Barack Obama

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White House photo by Eric Draper

The picture of Barack Obama standing between Bush Senior and Bush Junior in the Oval Office, along with Clinton and Carter in a hands-across-the-presidencies motif that Obama requested, gave me the creeps.

Philosophy can be defined as the uncovering and examining of hidden assumptions--premises that haven’t been vetted. President-elect Obama and his team are running ahead with (and away from) premises they haven’t examined with regard to America and its economy.

Obama is trying to ‘jump start’ a junk economy, but it’s dead and gone. How many billions will they flush down the drain before they realize it?

When he finally does see the light, Barack will face a choice—articulate an entirely new vision for America in the context of the global economy (that is, humankind as a whole); or stay stuck in the doldrums for years, maybe a decade.

Continuing to think in terms of “giving our children the chance to live out their dreams in a world that’s never been more competitive” is a guarantee they’ll live in a country that is neither cooperative nor competitive.

One of the unexamined ideas of team Obama is that economic activity is solely a function of buying and selling, and that if they can just ‘jump start’ the buying and selling again, economic health will return.

In a glutted market, economic activity isn’t primarily a function of demand and supply. At some point (which we’ve reached), the pursuit of glut runs out of gas. Then it becomes a matter of people’s priorities. Americans are finally beginning to realize that things can’t fill their emptiness.

After people have enough food, and adequate shelter and clothing, the market reflects what they think is important. In other words, people’s values.

It’s an interesting exercise to speculate (pardon the pun) what percentage of unnecessary stuff comprises the American economy. The percentage of junk (unnecessary stuff people buy with ‘discretionary income’ or on credit, out of advertising-whetted appetites, class consciousness, fads, or passing desires) went from an estimated 35% of GDP in 1965 to 65% in 2005.

That’s a lot of glut. But that is a word you never hear in America—‘glut.’ Economists and politicians use words like ‘overhang’ to describe an excess of things. This reflects another unexamined assumption about economic activity—that it can be reduced to mechanical analysis, terminology, and correction.

Simply put, the rich and powerful of America have promoted for decades buying as much junk as possible, big and small, by providing seemingly endless lines of credit to do so. The housing bubble was just the latest, greatest expression of this trend, turning millions of formerly solvent people into speculators, while selling mortgages to anyone who could put a signature to paper.

No amount of ‘jump-starting’ will put life back into a battery that’s dead. As some economists have said, we didn’t have a sub-prime loan crisis; we have a sub-prime economy crisis.

Barack Obama sees and sets forth a false choice. He thinks he has to choose between the divisive partisan politics that characterized the Clinton and Bush eras, or a patriotic appeal to “put the urgent needs of our nation above our own narrow interests.”

At the core level, Obama thinks he can bring us all together as Americans to solve our economic problems, but there are tens of millions of people for whom being an American no longer means much.

On one side are the countless ranks of the completely self-concerned, people who are patriotic when it serves their interests or appeals to their transitory emotions. On the other side are people who emotionally perceive themselves first as world citizens rather than American citizens. The latter are a distinct minority, to be sure, but our numbers are growing.

“I don’t believe it’s to late to change course,” Obama said in an important pre-inaugural speech on 9 January. But it is too late to ‘jump start’ the America we’ve known since World War II, and it has been for well over a decade. It isn’t, however, too late for humanity, and that is the way ahead for America.

In short, it’s not the economy, stupid; it is the fact that the American spirit died years ago, and it’s just showing up in the political economy now. How can America regain its soul (or, to put it in terms Americans understand, our economic vitality)?

Only when enough of its people, and its president, deeply place America in the context of humanity, and cease putting humanity in the context of America, will this nation have a rebirth.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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